A serial killer leaves grisly clues in the carnage. A nubile cop tracks him through the underbelly of Manhattan. Her paralyzed colleague strains to stop the murder spree from his hospital bed.

Ah, finally a film for the holidays.

Ushering in a hectic November-December span of nearly 70 releases, Universal’s “The Bone Collector” owned the first weekend spotlight with an estimated take of $17.2 million. It’s U’s second weekend win in the last three tries.

“People want to see it not just for Denzel Washington but for the suspense ,” said Universal distrib chief Nikki Rocco. “It’s got a lot of jumps, a lot of scares. It’s just a well-done thriller.”

Exit polls also yielded some unforeseen stats for the Philip Noyce-helmed psycho-thriller, which also stars Angelina Jolie. Auds were split almost 50-50 male to female and fell equally into all age groups.

Sony split “Bone’s” estimated $48 million production cost 50-50 with U. Columbia Pictures will handle foreign distribution.

Fight for the silver

Rivals were left to duke it out for the No. 2 spot. And tussle they did.

New Line estimated an $8 million honeymoon for “The Bachelor.” But rivals felt that figure should be annulled; most had Warner Bros.’ “The House on Haunted Hill” in second place. Warners’ number was $7.8 million.

There was no disputing the top limited release: USA Films’ “Being John Malkovich,” which brought in $1.9 million on just 175 screens, for an average of $10,857.

Execs see it broadening to 500-600 runs this Friday.

“This was the acid test,” said USA’s Jack Foley of the off-kilter comedy’s second weekend. “These are power numbers that show a lot of underground awareness.”

Miramax’s animated pic “Princess Mononoke” also held up well in its sophomore platform weekend. Minimajor estimates weekend take of $385,000 on just 38 screens, or about $10,100 per. Eight ongoing sites in New York and L.A. dropped about 15%.

Though he insisted “House” was No. 2, Dan Fellman of Warner Bros. was realistic about the 51% free-fall of last week’s Hallowinner. “History shows that these kinds of movies drop off in the second week,” he shrugged. “It’s still a pretty good hold.”

David Tuckerman, head of distribution for New Line, actually had a higher figure for “House,” meaning he ranked “Bachelor” third.

He added that any dispute over estimates doesn’t alter research feedback dubbing the pic “a very sweet date movie.” Auds were 55% female for the Buster Keaton remake.

Slow burn for ‘Insider’

The intrigue atop the B.O. chart rivaled that depicted in Disney’s “The Insider,” which opened fairly wide and took in $7 million.

Chuck Viane, Disney’s distrib chief, likened the launch of “Insider” to “trying to make fine wine.” He drew parallels to the pics “L.A. Confidential,” “Philadelphia” and “American Beauty.”

The cume of the critically lauded drama largely will rest on its standing in Top 10 lists and award ballots. Stars Al Pacino and Russell Crowe look to be serious Oscar contenders.

“We wanted to have two weeks to get our feet firmly planted before the monster films of Thanksgiving arrive,” Viane said.

Yet with a screen count of 1,809, “Insider” could muster a per-print average of just $3,875.

Auds’ wait-and-see stance on all pics followed the pattern on “Insider.” Combined estimates for the top 10 films slumped 33% from the same frame a year ago.

Indeed, “Bone’s” bow was impressive for this time of year, but it was less than half that of the champ on this weekend a year ago. Sony’s Adam Sandler starrer “The Waterboy” debuted with $39.4 million, setting a seasonal weekend mark.

Yet the top 10 spiked 20% over last weekend. And other signs of a healthy film biz abound. To wit, Paramount’s “Double Jeopardy.”

Actioner held in the top 5 after a $4.5 million frame. It passed the $100 million plateau on Friday, its 43rd day of release. Cume after the weekend will be at least $104 million.

‘Sense’ of success

Plus, “The Sixth Sense” is still spelling out “boffo” on showbiz Oija boards. Disney’s modest-budgeted suspenser lost 249 screens but saw grosses inch up 1%. Cume is $264.1 million.

Strong showings from “The Best Man” — which dropped just 31% in its third weekend to finish sixth — and now “Bone” extend U’s strong 1999. Already, the studio has scored with “The Mummy” ($155.3 million domestic cume), “Notting Hill” ($116 million) and “American Pie” ($101.6 million).

The rest of U’s holiday slate also holds promise. In planned order of release: “End of Days,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Man on the Moon” and “The Hurricane.”

Other studios take their first holiday shots this week. Warners bows “Pokemon: The First Movie” on Wednesday. Fox opens “Light It Up” the same day and follows Friday with “Anywhere But Here.”

Also Friday, Sony stakes a claim with “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” and Lions Gate irks protesters with “Dogma.”